IofC's long engagement with the UN entered a new phase in the 1990s with the opening of an office adjacent to the UN headquarters. Vasu Vaitla took up responsibilities for this office in July 2002, serving until 2005. Will Jenkins asked Vasu to share his vision for change.WJ: Tell us about your life before Initiatives of Change
Vasu: I was born in south India and my family immigrated to the US when I was 8. We lived in various places in the US - New Jersey, Illinois and California. Upon graduation from high school, I joined the US Air Force and then pursued a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California Santa Barbara and an M.A. in International Politics (Security and Peace and Conflict Resolution) from American University, Washington, DC. The most fortunate thing about my childhood was the contradictions I experienced. We were rich and poor. I have lived in the poor neighborhoods of the city, the suburbs, and far removed in the country. I saw and lived in many places - across the US, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. I had friends of many different backgrounds - black, white, Asian, African, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, affluent, poor, and so on. My fortune has been that all these different people befriended me, shared their lives with me, and inevitably became a part of me.
WJ: How did you find out about Initiatives of Change?
Vasu: During my undergraduate degree at Santa Barbara, I came across the Caux Scholars Program just before my senior year. The quest for a summer internship turned into a life-changing experience. As a Caux Scholar, I became exposed to international relations from a different and nontraditional perspective. When I returned to Caux the next year as a CSP intern, I became exposed to IofC and discovered a different sense of who I am. I changed intellectually and emotionally within the matter of two summers. The impact of Caux did not change my life's 'grand plan'. What it did was more significant. It made the grand plan more worthwhile and meaningful by framing the underlying values of who I am and by linking values with the grand plan more directly.
WJ: What made you want to take on responsibility for the UN office?
Vasu: Well, it was a lesson that I learned in Caux - because it felt right. I believe in the importance of IofC. Many other NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), who complement the work of states to build peace and foster development, miss the essential human factor that IofC is about - we listen instead of telling.
WJ: Why have an Initiatives of Change Office at the UN?
Vasu: The point of the IofC-UN Office is to interface with the UN. This means keeping IofC programs in the field informed about UN programs so our projects are congruent with international policy. States, NGOs, and civil society actors are partners in peace and development. Only with a unity of effort can our combined energies make a positive change. Conversely, the IofC-UN Office is a conduit for IofC people, programs, and ideas to influence the UN and international policy. The people of IofC have a rich history of experience and vital ideas that can benefit the UN.
WJ: What are your goals for the UN Office in the next year?
Vasu: My broad goal is to create substance to what the UN Office is about. We have laid the infrastructure for our presence at the UN and have plans to improve our engagement through such tasks as achieving consultative status. Some specific goals are:
1. Establish closer connections between the UN Office and the IofC worldwide network.
2. Develop the Office's focus on conflict prevention and reconciliation by becoming involved in UN-related initiatives in these fields and drawing together the expertise of the IofC fellowship.
3. Increase the presence of IofC within the UN community (UN departments and local NGOs).
WJ: What kind of support do you need for your work?
Vasu: The easiest way is to make financial contributions to the UN Office. We can do the minimum with what we have now, or we can do a lot more with just a little more funding. The most urgent need is to add a second full time person (even for just months at a time) to the office.
You can also support our work by getting directly involved! If you live in the local area, come to our events and functions. If you have an expertise (publicity, fund-raising, web-design, event organization, etc.) you can volunteer to help with a project, even if you're not in the local area. Another way is to become engaged in our work by sending us information, introducing us to your contacts, reading and responding to our newsletter, and offering advice on policy.
WJ: If you could chat with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for one minute, what would you say?
Vasu: If I had one minute with the Secretary-General, I would spend it listening. I have learned that an initial silence followed by willingness to be silent elicits deeper truths than speaking from an agenda.